WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Obama will correct a historical act of discrimination today when he awards the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest commendation for combat valor, to a group of Hispanic, Jewish and African-American veterans who were passed over because of their racial or ethnic backgrounds.
One of those soldiers is Santa Monican Joe Gandara, who enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after graduating from Santa Monica High School. The private with the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, died behind enemy lines while protecting his fellow soldiers on June 9, 1944 in Amferville, France.
His niece, 69-year-old Miriam Theresa Adams, will accept the award on Gandara’s behalf.
“I’m very grateful to be here for Joe, so happy, honored and very proud of him,” Adams said during an interview with the Daily Press via telephone from Washington, D.C. “He sacrificed his life to be a good American. He was very proud of his [Mexican] heritage, but he was an American first.”
The unusual presentation will culminate a 12-year Pentagon review ordered by Congress into past discrimination in the ranks.
The March 18 ceremony will mark another step to revisit a history of discrimination in the armed forces as the nation’s demographics and social values shift rapidly.
The recipients served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Collectively, their award ceremony will mark the single largest group of Medal of Honor recipients since World War II, when more than two dozen service members were honored in that conflict’s last days.
The unusual historical accounting began in 2002 when Congress, as part of the military spending bill, ordered the Pentagon to look into whether Jewish and Hispanic service members had been passed over unfairly for the nation’s highest military honor.
Defense Department officials said there was specific evidence to suggest such discrimination may have existed in the ranks, including instances in which Hispanic and Jewish soldiers apparently changed their names to hide their ethnicity. The congressional order spanned the period from December 1941 through September 2001.
The project was an enormous undertaking that sent military personnel officials searching for lost records and battlefield histories amid the complicated politics surrounding the military’s highest honor, according to a report in the Washington Post.
Officials from each service branch focused on service members who had been awarded the second-highest medal for gallantry: the Distinguished Service Cross for the Army, the Air Force Cross for that branch, and the Navy Cross for the Navy and Marine Corps. Gandara was a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, Adams said, as well as the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Although that narrowed the review, the Army alone identified more than 600 records that needed reassessment. The smaller branches found 275 among them.
Many of the veterans under review had passed away, making interviews impossible. Much of the review relied on existing information and comparisons to Medal of Honor recipients, but even then, there were challenges unforeseen when the project began.
In 1973, a fire tore through the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, destroying as many as 18 million military personnel files. Among those were Army service records from 1912 through 1960, a period that included World War II and Korea. The Air Force lost most of its personnel files from 1947 though 1964, according to the Post report.
The disaster forced officials to recreate the military history of scores of potential candidates for the upgraded commendation by interviewing family members, fellow battlefield soldiers, and others.
The reassessment sent a host of candidates through the various service boards that decide on Medal of Honor recipients and then to the Joint Chiefs for approval. Two dozen veterans — all from the Army — emerged as worthy of an upgrade to the Medal of Honor.
One of those men is Gandara, who was born in Santa Monica in 1924.
Gandara’s family moved to the bay city during the early 1900s, Adams said. He lived with his mother, father, and five siblings in a modest home on Frank Street in a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood and attended John Adams Junior High before graduating from Samohi. His dream was to enlist in the Army as many of his friends had so that he could “be a part of the solution,” Adams said.
“Everything I know about him is through family and friends,” she said. “I know he was a really nice kid who came from a close family. I grew up in the same house. I had the same family values he had. We were very disciplined. He was a very helpful person. He would often help his father, [a baker]. They were always together.”
During World War II, the 507th was a regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division and, later, 17th Airborne Division of the United States Army. It would participate in three operations during the war: D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Varsity. After arriving in Britain, their D-Day objective was to help secure the Merderet River crossings. Although their target was supposed to be in Drop Zone T, north of Amfreville, the confusion caused by clouds and flak resulted in a wide scattering of the unit.
Gandara’s detachment came under devastating enemy fire from a strong German force, pinning the men to the ground for a period of four hours. Gandara advanced voluntarily and alone toward the enemy and destroyed three hostile machine guns before he was fatally wounded.
Adams said stories about her uncle’s bravery influenced many men in her family, including her son, who serves in the Air Force National Guard. Ever since World War II, Adams said someone in her family has been affiliated with the military.
“I really don’t know the complete story behind it,” Adams said of the effort to identify soldiers who may have been overlooked. “I know now he is going to get the honor and we are very proud of his dedication and what he sacrificed. Our family has always been proud to be Americans of Mexican descent. … I wish that Joe’s mother and his brothers and sisters were still alive today. I know they would have been very proud.”